Police must treat 17-year-olds in custody as children

21 May 2014

During the time he was in custody he was not allowed contact with his mother, who only found out about his arrest four hours after he was detained. On arrival at Battersea Police Station having learned of her son's arrest she was denied access to him. Subsequently the boy was notified by letter that his bail was cancelled and no further action was taken against him.

The case also highlighted the cases of two other boys who had been arrested and detained as 17 year olds but treated as adults. Currently the law requires those under the age of 17 to have a person designated as an appropriate adult who is usually their parent, and if the parent is unable to perform this role there is an independent service available to provide an appropriate adult, and whose role is to ensure that the welfare of the youngster is being properly looked after by the police, and to assist in communication between the detainee and the police.

At the High Court Lord Justice Moses said "I conclude that it is inconsistent with the rights of the claimant and his mother enshrined in article 8 (of the European Convention of Human Rights) for the Secretary of State to treat 17 year olds as adults when in detention". The Judge said that to do so "disregards the definition" of a child in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the "preponderance of legislation affecting children and justice".

Two boys took their own lives following their arrest and detention, and in welcoming the outcome of the proceedings their parents acknowledge that the ruling could have a positive effect. Ann Thornber, whose son was one of those who took his own life, stated "obviously we are delighted that some good has come out of it, but it's not going to bring Joe or Edward back. If it can stop another family going through the devastation we have been through there has to be something positive".

Shauneen Lambe the Director of Just for Kids Law said "our pressing concern is how this protection can be implemented to protect 17 year olds from today. We have asked the Home Secretary to issue immediate guidance to police forces around the country before she begins her consultation. We would be happy to assist in the drafting of this. We are of course anxious to make sure another tragedy doesn't happen in the interim".

According to the Home Office 75,000 17 year olds are detained in police custody every year. Detainees under 17 years of age are entitled to extra protection by way of the appropriate adult system in addition to their right to free and independent legal advice. Those of the age of 17 years or over are currently treated as adults whilst being dealt with at the police station. However, if charged they will be charged to appear before a youth court until they are 18 years of age when they will then appear before the Magistrates' Court along side other adults. The anomaly relating to those who are 17 and the fact that they appear to be treated differently in different parts of the justice system, has existed for a long time.

Code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence 1984 Codes of the Practice states under paragraph C1.5 that 'if anyone appears to be under 17 they shall be treated as a juvenile for the purposes of this code in the absence of clear evidence that they are older.' It is deemed to be such an important role that any solicitor advising the detainee cannot carry out the roles of both lawyer and appropriate adult.

Code C also defines under paragraph C 1.7 that an appropriate adult in the case of a juvenile means the parent, guardian or representative of a local authority if that juvenile is in care, or failing those persons some other responsible adult aged 18 or over who is not a police officer or employed by the police. Therefore there is a further distinction within the codes which suggests that those under the age of 18 appear to be considered incapable, unable or in some way too unreliable to act as a appropriate adult.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.